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Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle

(PBS; US DVD: 15 Oct 2013)

An explosion of superhero films over the last decade has transformed an effort by some lower east side entrepreneurs at making a few bucks into an entertainment juggernaut. Given their sheer omnipresence, observers of American culture more or less have to take the superhero seriously. It’s no surprise that the tights and capes crowd have gotten their own much deserved PBS documentary and, with some small caveats, it’s well worth your time.


Michael Kantor’s Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle brings together history and imagination in a particularly compelling fashion. The stable of creators and comic book culture icons that the producers of the series have brought together will delight fans of comics. The omnipresent Stan Lee gets a lot of screen time but so does a very elderly Joe Simon, creator of Captain America. Several important scholars of comic book culture provide commentary, as well as Adam West of Batman and Robin fame and Lynda Carter, TV’s “Wonder Woman”.


The series displays a strong sense of the influence of history over the origins of American superheroes and the themes adopted in their narratives. A detailed look at the creation of Captain America notes how his two Jewish creators put together a character who, even before America entered the war, gave Hitler and his henchmen a solid punch in the mouth.


Superheroes does an excellent job of showing how early comic artists created comics by borrowing all sorts of materials out of the echo chamber of popular culture. Joe Simon talks about this in relation to a character that he and Jack Kirby created called the Blue Bolt. Like Captain America, the Bolt had become super-powered by being injected with a super-serum. Simon comments that, “If an idea is good, you use it eight times.”


The series does away with number of myths about comics, one of the most important being that “the funny papers” are quintessentially juvenile. We learn, for example, that more than half of all Americans read comics in the ‘40s. GIs read them by the pile, comics outselling other kinds of printed matter by a ratio of ten to one. The final episode, that explores 1978 to the present, examines what some have called “the Dark Age” in comics. Not meant in a pejorative sense, the term refers to the use of morally ambiguous heroes and highly adult situations. After the ‘80s, comics became primarily an adult playground.


Although doing a good job revealing the interactions between history and comics, each episode gives literally only moments to some of the important, and sometimes problematic, cultural and political issues raised by the comic book revolution.


For example, the episode dealing with comic’s golden age certainly examines the portrayal of the Japanese in nearly every comic that dealt with the Second World War. However, beyond telling us that creators used racial stereotypes, there’s no real analysis. The issue of African Americans in comics, still a live controversy in many respects, gets some discussion in the second episode. New superheroes like “Black Panther” appeared in conjunction with some of the triumphs of the civil rights movement, but the series doesn’t really explore the issue beyond making this point.


Arguably, this is OK. This is clearly meant as a celebratory history of comics that doesn’t want to get bogged down in the complications of the industry’s dark side. That said, a love for the medium leads us to ask questions about the medium. What motivated the early artists to draw a racial Other as terrifying when, as the episode several times makes the point, Jews made up a large number of the early artists and writers and themselves became the object of vicious representations? This would not have had to take a condemnatory tone, but rather simply explored the context that made these disturbing images possible.


Superheroes does a much better job at looking into the relationship between art and commerce that has been another perennial controversy in the world of comics. Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel’s struggle with DC comics get some examination, as does this continuing controversy in the ‘80s and ‘90s. The documentary does tread lightly here as there are, after all, contentious legal issues involved, but every viewer will get a good sense of the major issues at stake in these struggles.


The bonus features are slim but worth your time. We get extended interviews with icons of the world of superhero popular culture, including Adam West, Lynda Carter, Joe Simon and, of course, Stan Lee.


If you are long time comics fan who wants to steep yourself in the medium’s history or someone who simply wonders why these seemingly childish enthusiasms have become modern myths, this documentary offers the ideal place to begin.

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W. Scott Poole is a writer and an associate professor of history at the College of Charleston. He's the author of Vampira: Dark Goddess of Horror (Counterpoint/Soft Skull Press), a book about the life and strange times of America's first horror host. He is also the author of the award-winning Monsters in America (2011). Follow him on twitter @monstersamerica.


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